Protests erupted in Kuwait on Tuesday following a court verdict in which three former MPs – Falah al-Sawwagh, Bader al-Dahoun, and Khaled al-Tahous, were sentenced to three years of hard labor for allegedly insulting the Emir at rallies opposing changes to the electoral law last year. Despite being convicted, the three MPs are not yet in custody, and in fact they attended opposition rallies. On Monday a Twitter user was jailed for five years for insulting the Emir. The verdicts are not final and are subject to appeal, and at the rallies protesters marched from the home of Sawwagh to Tahus. At the rally, former MP Musallam al-Barrak, who is facing charges similar to those faced by the three former MPs who were convicted of insulting the Emir called the verdict political and said that the opposition would have a meeting to strategize that would be held on Wednesday. Barrak said that protests would be held very day in various areas throughout Kuwait. Perhaps in a sign of things to come, Falah ben Jami, the leader of the Awazem, who are the largest Bedouin tribe in Kuwait, appared at the rally and warned that the political situation in Kuwait would deteriorate like it did in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia.
The regime appears to be responding to criticism by defending its actions as consistent with upholding the constitution of Kuwait. The Ministry of Information’s comments on the recent convictions present the arrests of critics of the regime as almost a constitution obligation, as though there was nothing that motivated these arrests other than a desire to defend the constitution, which happens to define the Emir’s position is inviolable. In fact, they issued a statement saying that citizens could change the constitution if they sought to do so, presenting the issue as one of constitutionalism – which would, if one ignores the measures that the regime has taken recently, including the Emir’s electoral decree changing the entire voting system – be a plausible argument, though in fact the arrests were clearly political. It was part of a growing campaign by the regime to clamp down on dissent and erode what was once the Gulf’s most open political culture.
It is important to recognize that the law under which the three former MPs were arrested – which prohibits criticism of the Emir – is not only bad policy on a philosophical sense but also in a practical sense. In Tunisia, they decided not to include a clause prohibiting blasphemy in the constitution on practical grounds – in the words of the speaker of the constituent assembly, there would not be a blasphemy clause “not because we have agreed to (allow) attacks on the sacred, but because the sacred is something very, very difficult to define.” Insulting someone’s religious beliefs is much more serious than insulting a country’s ruler, but the same principle outlined by the Tunisian Constituent Assembly Speaker applies – the problem is not just that the Emir’s position is considered to be inviolable, thus making criticism illegal, but also that the definition of criticism itself is difficult to define, and open to political manipulation.
Just as in Tunisia, where they did not include a blasphemy clause due to concerns that politicians might one day accuse those disagreeing with them of blasphemy, there is the potential that prohibiting criticism of the Emir permits those who are opposed to political reform to define criticism in their own terms, and for them to argue that any objection to actions taken by the Emir – including the electoral decree – are in violation of the constitution. The opposition MPs defined their speeches not as criticism but rather as advice. Repealing the provision in the constitution prohibiting criticism of the Emir is right not just in terms of free speech but also because it would deprive the regime of one of the tools it uses to harass anyone who criticises its decisions and policies.